User Studies and Distance Learners: Top 5 Articles to Read this Quarter

Carrie Bishop and Angie Thorpe, DLS Bibliography Committee

Several years ago, the ACRL Board of Directors approved a set of Standards for Distance Learning Library Services ( Among these was the specification that, “a comprehensive bibliography of recent literature on distance learning library services” be made available on the DLS website. This is a smart idea: In an emerging area of librarianship like distance services, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a curated and annotated list of current literature from actual practitioners? The DLS bibliography earnestly responded to this call, and those who worked on the first through sixth editions must be recognized for their insights and contributions – their work surely filled in the picture for librarians with responsibilities in this area.

However, as every library that has shifted from “classic” to “new” resource formats knows (i.e. every library ever), the ways in which we consume and organize the scholarly record have changed. Thus, the 2016-2017 DLS Bibliography Committee felt it was also time to revisit the Bibliography of Library Services for Distance Learning. It’s a fact that librarians are pressed for time, so we appreciate others taking the time to steer us toward the literature that can help us improve in our jobs. In a growing area like distance librarianship, however, the literature was growing faster than the bibliography could keep pace with, and the Committee worried we were missing new ideas and developments that could help others TODAY. Thus, the Committee voted to transition from providing a comprehensive bibliography of distance librarianship literature to a quick-and-dirty top 5 on a specific distance-related topic. We know you have a lot to do, so we want to help you stay current in areas we think you’ll find interesting.

With that as background, this first post is about the top 5 articles we found relating to user studies as a basis for planning, delivering, and improving services to distance learners. As your distance services have grown in the past few years (probably because your institution has increased its hybrid or 100% online course offerings), the emphasis on assessment of everything has probably grown in tandem. User studies help libraries determine what’s going well and what can use improvement with any service. Carrie Bishop and Angie Thorpe of the DLS Bibliography Committee reviewed articles that specifically addressed user studies relating to distance services. We present to you our top 5 recommendations for further reading on this topic:

 Brown, M., Hughes, H., Keppell, M., Hard, N., & Smith, L. (2015). Stories from students in their first semester of distance learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(4), 1-17.

This is a compelling report on 20 students’ actual first-time experiences with distance education. Students recorded their points-of-view using video diaries, answering reflective questions at irregular intervals each day during the study timeframe. The recordings were then thematically analysed in order to cull important statements from question prompts.


The study presented five emergent themes: 1) Motivating factors; 2) Inhibiting factors; 3) Importance of support; 4) Study approaches; and 5) Retrospective thoughts. Taken out of context, these themes would likely be themes in any student’s life, distance or face-to-face. The individual sentiments expressed within these themes, though, reveal the unique “shades of grey” for the soft factors of what being a distance learner entails, such as simultaneously caring for dependent children and/or working full time while taking courses. This look into the distance learner’s perspective is not specific to the library, but librarians may benefit by offering flexible and repeated services that will fit into these students’ lives so they may be successful.

Catalano, A. (2014). Improving distance education for students with special needs: A qualitative study of students’ experiences with an online library research course. Journal of Library and Information Services in Distance Learning, 8(1-2), 17-37.

After redesigning a one credit online library research course to incorporate best practices for students with special needs and universal design for learning, Catalano solicited feedback from 7 students and conducted in-depth interviews of 5 students with disabilities ranging from vision, anxiety, migraines, hand injury, and OCD.  The interviews focused on student’s learning preference and study strategies in both face-to-face and online classes.


In addition to providing a list of general recommendations for designing an online course, Catalano also provides specific considerations for librarians using popular tools, like Libguides and Guide on the Side, to ensure accessibility.

Paladino, E.B., Klentzin, J.C., & Mills, C. P. (2016). Card sorting in an online environment: Key to Involving online-only student population in usability testing of an academic library website. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 11(1-2), 37-49.

Paladino, Klentzin, and Mills aim to fill a gap in research by using an online card sorting technique to observe how their institution’s fully online students perceive and interact with the library website.  The card sorting technique also allowed fully online students to interact with someone from the University other than their teaching faculty.  Paladino, Klentzin, and Mills also collected qualitative feedback from the students about the card sorting process to evaluate its effectiveness as a research method.


Based on their study, the authors offer suggestions for clearer word choice to improve library websites and also recommendations for improvements to the card sorting method.

Sterling, L., McKay, J., & Ericson, C. (2017). Long distance relationships: Assessing the library service needs of rural students in eLearning courses. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 11(1-2), 140-157.

This paper reports on a needs survey conducted by the Distance Library Services Team at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The purpose of the survey was to investigate how well the university’s library was specifically serving distance learners who were located in geographically-isolated places from the university.


Distance learners may be located down the street or thousands of miles away, and libraries must ensure their services are available to all of these students. This article encourages optimism that perhaps more distance students are finding and using the library website than we think. It also provides specific suggestions for additional outreach to distance students, including guided tutorials and virtual library tours. The survey instrument is included as an appendix, so librarians interested in conducting a similar study need not necessarily start from scratch.

Wharton, L.N. (2017). From assessment to implementation: Using qualitative interviews to inform distance library services. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 11(1-2), 196-205.

As a new librarian in a newly created position, Wharton describes how she completed a needs assessment to both determine the needs of the distance learning community at her institution and build relationships with key stakeholders. By conducting one-on-one qualitative interviews, Wharton was able to hear directly from both faculty and students in online courses about their experiences using the library, what they found most useful, and what improvements could be made.


Wharton’s research allowed her to create short and long-term strategic plans for distance services at her library based on stakeholder needs. This article provides a model for quickly collecting very rich data on the needs of the distance learning community in order to create immediate plans of action.

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One Response to User Studies and Distance Learners: Top 5 Articles to Read this Quarter

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Articles About Creating Learning Objects | ACRL Distance Learning Section

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